The U.S. transportation construction market is expected to shrink 5.5% next year, driven primarily by the severe economic recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic, according to the annual forecast released Dec. 10 by the Washington, D.C.-based American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA). Overall, the value of work is expected to drop from $294.2 billion in 2020 to $278.1 billion in 2021, according to ARTBA Chief Economist Dr. Alison Premo Black’s analysis.
The expected market contraction follows a record year for most transportation sectors in 2020. While Pennsylvania and Washington state temporarily shut down projects in the spring, the rest of the country classified transportation construction as an essential industry.
Transportation improvements continued with enhanced safety protocols in place. As a result, total transportation construction activity — after project costs and inflation — is expected to increase by nearly 4% in 2020, with significant gains in highway and street construction (+8.3%), subway and light rail work (+8.8%), airport terminal and runway construction (+7.2%), and port and waterway spending (+12%). Bridge and tunnel construction was the exception, with activity falling 20% in 2020, reflecting several broader market trends including a focus on smaller structures.
The major drop-off in transportation user fees caused by COVID-19 stay-at-home orders initiated last spring, high national unemployment and the decline in public transit use and demand for air travel are the key factors affecting the outlook, ARTBA says.
“Not surprisingly, the 2021 market reflects the broader COVID-19 economic contraction that began in February 2020,” Black stated. “Congress and the president could help mitigate the economic downturn and put the nation on the road to a stronger recovery by approving a long-term, robustly funded transportation infrastructure investment package early in 2021.”
Black adds that market growth could resume in 2022, provided that economic conditions improve and travel demand in some sectors begins to return to pre-recession levels.
In her forecast, Black cautions that overall transportation construction activity will vary across the country as states deploy different strategies to balance their budgets and manage debt. States are expecting shortfalls in transportation revenues of anywhere from $35 billion to $40 billion through 2024, ARTBA says.
Among the key findings in the ARTBA forecast:
- Public & Private Highway, Street Construction: The real value of public highway, street and related work by state DOTs and local governments — the largest market sector — is expected to decline $3.1 billion, or 4%, to $74.5 billion in 2021. ARTBA estimates work on private highways, bridges, parking lots and driveways will decrease from $72.3 billion in 2020 to $66.4 billion in 2021. Based on recent contract award data, the market should experience growth in half of the states.
- Bridges & Tunnels: The pace of bridge and tunnel work is expected to decline 2% in 2021 after steep declines in 2020. The total value of work fell from $27.5 billion in 2019 to $22 billion in 2020, or 20%. The market is forecast to be $21.7 billion in 2021 and work is expected to be up in about half the states.
- Light Rail, Subways, & Railroads: Public transit and rail construction will decline 1% from $24.5 billion in 2020 to $24.2 billion in 2021. The activity reflects ongoing work for several major projects across the country. Investment by private Class 1 freight railroads is expected to remain flat at $13.3 billion. Subway and light rail investment is forecast to decline slightly from $11.2 billion in 2020 to $10.9 billion in 2021.
- Airport Runways & Terminals: The value of airport construction, including terminals, runways and related work, is expected to decline from $24.6 million in 2020 to $20.5 billion in 2021, or 17%, before resuming growth in 2023 and beyond. After growing 4% in 2020, airport terminal and related work, including structures like parking garages, hangars, air freight terminals and traffic towers, is expected to decrease from $18.9 billion to $15.8 billion. Runway work is forecast to decline from $5.7 billion in 2020 to $4.8 billion in 2021.
- Ports & Waterways: The value of port and waterway investment is expected to increase slightly to $3.9 billion in 2020. Construction activity in 2020 was $3.8 billion, up from $3.4 billion in 2019.
ARTBA’s forecast is based on a series of proprietary econometric models for each mode and analysis of federal, state and local data and market intelligence. The full forecast can be purchased at store.artba.org.